parents, teachers, and the teenaged student gather around a table for an IEP meeting

As children with visual impairments progress through school, parents and administrators meet regularly to review the child’s progress and set new goals. Sometimes, especially for older students, questions arise as to whether special education services are still necessary—if the student is doing well as long as basic accommodations like braille, large print, and/or assistive technology are in place. In some cases, a Section 504 plan is discussed as an alternative to special education.

The following sections help to compare and contrast special education services and the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) with the protections provided under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Note that individual states and school districts may have additional policies or guidance in place with respect to how they administer IEPs and 504 plans; the following information is based upon federal law.

What Laws Provide for IEPS and 504 Plans and Who Oversees the Laws?

IEP — The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as amended in 2004, overseen by U.S. Department of Education: Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services

504 Plan — Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, overseen by U.S. Department of Education: Office of Civil Rights

Note: Because of the way that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is written, virtually any violation of Section 504 is also a violation of the ADA.

What Is the Purpose of the Law?

IEP — (a) “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free, appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living; (b) to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected by supporting system improvement activities; coordinated research and personnel preparation; coordinated technical assistance, dissemination, and support; and technology development and media services.” (Source: 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d))

504 Plan — “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States… shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” (Source: Section 504, 29 U.S.C. §794)

Who Is Protected?

IEP — Children birth through 21 with disabilities in one of the eligible categories whose disability adversely affects their educational performance.

504 Plan — People with disabilities throughout their lives, in any type of school, employment, health/welfare program, or social service.

People Who Qualify for a 504 Plan:

  • have a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • have a record of such an impairment; or
  • are regarded as having such an impairment.

Note: Students who qualify for IEPs are always considered students with disabilities and, therefore, are automatically protected under Section 504, even if they are not designated as having a 504 plan. Since IDEA guarantees more student and parent rights and protections than 504, students with IEPs are rarely involved in challenges or disputes with respect to Section 504. Students who qualify only under 504 are students with disabilities who, with reasonable modifications, are able to meet all of the program’s requirements.

What Is the Evaluation Process?

IEP — Students receive a full individualized evaluation as part of qualifying for special education services and are entitled to subsequent evaluations at least every three years.

504 Plan — “Schools are required to ‘establish standards and procedures’ for the evaluation and placement of students who, because of disability, need or are believed to need special education or related services, before taking any action with respect to the initial placement in a regular or special education program and any subsequent significant change in placement.” (Source: Some form of documentation of compliance with this process is required; however, timelines and procedures for conducting evaluations and notifying parents are not dictated by the law.

Is There a Written Educational Plan for the Student?

IEP — Yes. A multidisciplinary team, including the student’s parent/guardian, must develop a written Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Schools are bound by law to implement the contents of the IEP.

504 Plan — Schools are bound by law not to discriminate against the student based upon his or her disability; however, the plan for protecting the student’s rights can be less formal and does not necessarily have to be in writing. Although many school districts do provide written plans for the accommodations/modifications a student will receive, Section 504 does not require a written “504 Plan” document for the student.

How Are Parents/Guardians Involved?

IEP — IDEA includes specific provisions to protect the rights of the parents of children with disabilities. Parents/guardians must be invited to IEP meetings, receive prior written notice of meetings, and be afforded many due process rights should they wish to file a complaint or disagree with the school district’s recommendations.

504 Plan — Parents/guardians must be notified that a 504 plan has been developed for their student. Schools must have a system of procedural safeguards including an impartial hearing and review procedure. Annual meetings are not required and school districts are not required by law to invite parents to meetings about student placement, accommodations or modifications.

Can a Student Receive Accommodations (Such as Braille or Large Print) and Modifications (Such as Reduced Assignments) Not Available to Other Students Without Disabilities, if Necessary?

IEP — Yes.

504 Plan — Yes.

Can a Student Receive Special Education Services (Such as From a Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments or TVI)?

IEP — Yes.

504 Plan — Generally no.

Will a 504 Plan Guarantee That My Child Is Fully Included?

Neither status as a “Special Education” or a “504” student should legally determine an educational placement. Special education is not a specific place or placement. Both IDEA and Section 504 protect students’ rights to education in the least restrictive environment. With an IEP, parents are involved in all of the multidisciplinary team meetings and can challenge school district’s placement decisions through due process. Under 504, parents are not required to be invited to discussions of the most appropriate placement for a child, although parents do have due process rights and can file complaints. (Individual school districts may choose to follow procedures for 504 Plans which are more similar to those required by IDEA, but specific procedures are not specified by Section 504).

What About My Child Who Has No Additional Disability?

Will an IEP hold my child back? Will a 504 prepare my child for the “real world”?

Accommodations and other protections afforded by Section 504 are more similar to the protections which young adults can expect under the Americans with Disabilities Act (in college, employment, etc.). However, note that one of the purposes of IDEA special education programming is to prepare students for further education, employment, and independent living. This is a key role of the TVI and the Expanded Core Curriculum for students with visual impairments, which are a part of special education students with visual impairments who have IEPs. Under 504, students are not guaranteed any transition meetings or supports for learning to independently manage disability-specific accommodations that they might need in the workplace or for independent living. The protections in place under a 504 plan may not provide frequent and thorough monitoring and evaluation, especially assistive technology evaluation and training, although students with visual impairment often benefit from individualized consideration of the most appropriate access technologies. Students and parents should be aware of this important limitation when considering moving to a 504 Plan.


Durheim, M. (2010). A parent’s guide to Section 504 in public schools. Retrieved from

Howey, P. (2012). Ask the advocate: Key differences between Section 504 and IDEA. Retrieved from

Rosenfeld, S. J. (n.d.). Section 504 and IDEA 97 compared. Retrieved from

Skalski, A. K., and Stanek, J. (2010). Section 504: A guide for parents and educators. Helping Children at Home and School III, 1–5. Retrieved from

Wright, P., and Wright, P. (2008). Key differences between Section 504, the ADA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Retrieved from